How Many Links Are Too Many Links?

numoflinks.jpg
Click to enlarge this visualization. Created using Processing by Nick Bilton. Data collection by Evan Sandhaus.

I repeatedly hear from people with information overload disorder. From news and information sites to blogs, social networks, tweeters, emails, and on and on, the blizzard of information has easily surpassed category 5 levels.

To understand how much content effluvia we’re subjected to, I wanted to see how many links are on the homepage of popular websites. For example, if I go to the homepage of the Huffington Post, I see 720 links, in one shot. Then click inside to a story and you’ve nearly doubled that number—it ads up pretty quickly. What about the tech blogs? BoingBoing Gadgets, 514. Gizmodo, 468. Engadget 432, all on one page. And on average, fewer than 1% of the links on news sites and blogs actually point to rich content, 99% are navigation and other article headlines. Aggregation site Techmeme has a whopping 1081 links.

This visualization takes 98 of the top websites, from different genres, and organizes them alphabetically, with varying circle sizes to represent the number of links on their respective homepage. That’s 36,128 total links from these 98 sites. You can easily see how a day spent online navigating your favorite news, blogs, and information sites, checking in with your Google Reader feeds, following a twitter stream of a couple of hundred people, and clicking on your email a few dozen times (likely an understatement for most of us) can expose you to well over 100,000 links in a single day.

Granted, we probably don’t see all these links, but they’re being pushed at us in the hopes that we do. And maybe this isn’t such a bad thing? The beauty of the internet is the ability to link. To thread through the content flow and create our own narrative. Or, is today’s internet akin to the wild west of the early days of newspapers, where there were 80 to 100 headlines on a single front page?

  • http://www.wannadevelop.com wannadevelop.com

    You really got me thinking about whether i’m obsessing about links too much… Or not :p

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    At which point did information overload graduate to becoming a ‘disorder’?

  • http://paulmwatson.com/journal Paul M. Watson

    Could you update the graphic to indicate common links (navigation as you say) vs. unique links and then also external vs. internal (engadget has far too many internal links when you really want to link externally) please? Get a better idea of how many of the, say, 720 Huff links are part of information overload and how many are completely ignored between pages.

  • http://americandigest.org vanderleun

    “…is today’s internet akin to the wild west of the early days of newspapers, where there were 80 to 100 headlines on a single front page? “

    You mean, like, The Drudge Report? A site unrepresented here (I think) that probably outdoes most of these here in aggregate and has been, in essence, nothing but links for years now.

  • Nick

    If “information overload” has become a disorder, I would like to know how I can receive funding for special services that will help me. I hope they create an “Office on Information Overload”. Think of the sub-committees and lobbying opportunities. The potential is unlimited…or is this type of thinking just a result of my disorder?

  • http://www.linnetwoods.com Linnet Woods

    Is it grocery overload when one walks into a large store or store overload in a shopping mall? Is it book overload in a national library or word overload in an encyclopaedia?

    One is not obliged to follow every link on a page but it is nice to have the choice. Some of my best adventures online have happened as a result of following a flow of links to some entirely new experience or idea to enjoy.

    The idea of information overload goes hand in hand with that of brain under-capacity… let’s try and stretch our brains rather than trying to shrink their potential contents!

  • Nick

    I think Linnet must be a Canadian.

  • http://www.bsbnyc.net Ben Bloom

    out of those 100.000 links, I can’t imagine that every single one is relevant to an individual reader. The trick with all information consumption is to have good filters.

    I don;t think we’re there yet, but a lot of approximations for perfect filtering do exist. Twitter, email lists, facebook, RSS readers, all of these take advantage of social networks to filter information. Yet the experience still feels like overload- we need more intelligence in the filters.

    If only we all had a BarackBerry.

  • Nick

    Actually Linnett, you’re completely wrong with that analogy. You should read Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz where he specifically talks about the anxiety consumers feel when they go to the grocery store and have to decide between 31 different variations of jam, when all they want is 4 or 5.

    The problem is that we don’t have good enough filters, and good enough design, to help sift through this data, and we’re being forced to go it alone.

  • bowerbird

    it’s not the links per se that’s distracting, it’s that blue type! :+)

    -bowerbird

    p.s. my favorite meaningless links are the ones to wikipedia.
    because, like, you know, i do know how to look it up myself,
    if i don’t know what it is, if i really want, know what i mean?

  • http://grapplica.blogspot.com/ Grapplica

    In my opinion, there can’t be enough (useful) links, as long as it doesn’t add up to clutter or confuse the reader it’s fine. Any link that isn’t useful to add up on the value of the content is too much.

    I noticed there are a lot of newssites included in that selection of 98. I recently wrote an article on the design and usability of the major Belgian newsportals and it struck me that they tend to use very few links to support the articles.

    http://grapplica.blogspot.com/2009/02/major-design-review-on-belgian.html

  • http://grapplica.blogspot.com/ Grapplica

    In my opinion, there can’t be enough (useful) links, as long as it doesn’t add up to clutter or confuse the reader it’s fine. Any link that isn’t useful to add up on the value of the content is too much.

    I noticed there are a lot of newssites included in that selection of 98. I recently wrote an article on the design and usability of the major Belgian newsportals and it struck me that they tend to use very few links to support the articles.

    Major design review on Belgian newssites

  • http://npdoty.name/ Nick Doty

    This visualization is misleading. You seem to be scaling the circles by using the radius to match the number of links. But because you’re using area, this doesn’t work linearly (the area is pi multiplied by the square of the radius).

    For example, the TechMeMe circle encompasses The New York Times, The Independent, Tech Crunch and Scientific America and based on my rough judgement, that’s probably only half the circle. But if you add up the links of all of those sites, you see that it’s actually larger than the TechMeMe total.

    Similarly, Aljazeera has half the links of BBC Business News, but has one quarter of the area.

    Humans are notoriously bad at estimating area (so this may not be an effective visualization at all, even after it’s corrected), but displaying area when it’s actually only the height that can be compared is simply misleading.

  • http://www.dynamicalsoftware.com Avery Otto

    I agree with Nick. Link overload is the quickest path to site abandonment. That is why we use a recommendation engine to determine the top five stories on the front page of our challenge based collective intelligence platform http://www.dynamicalsoftware.com/cogenuity

  • Jimmy

    Nick,
    Your bubble chart on information overload is, well, information overload. I know bubble charts are sexy, but it’s overdoing it a bit, isn’t it? If a simple bar chart is the most efficient means to get your point across, then use a bar chart. Unless of course, this is an inside joke and you’re sitting back laughing at the irony of a chart on information overload that is setup to be more information overload.

  • http://chandoo.org/wp Chandoo

    Nick, very good effort to show the information overload, but I think this chart suffers from several bad qualities:

    - you have used bubbles, but used diameter to size them instead of area (which is the correct use of bubbles)
    - The chart is way too big and doesnt really tell anything. You could have used something like a histogram to show the distribution of link count across sites

    I have written a review of this along with suggested alternatives here: http://chandoo.org/wp/2009/02/26/too-many-bubbles-bad-chart/

    Check out if you get a chance… :)

  • http://www.metaprinter.com robert ivan

    nick you son of a gun, I was working on this very story for metaprinter. Guess I’ll put a spin on it.

    Just out of curiosity, what did you use / how did you get- your #’s

  • http://www.EssentialArt.org astraea

    information overload does not come only because of going online but it is exaccerbated by all of the infomation that we are bombarded with when we do go online. Information overload is caused also by all of the commercials we hear on the radio or television or news we hear on the 500 news shows or visual graphics we absorb through the 1000s of movie channels and tv programs today. It also does come from walking into a grocery store w lots of options or too many stores. Or being accessible by cell phone for questions and comments 24/7. It’s not new either, I reference it in my book,”Hung Jury” that was written almost 20 years ago. You can find it online at http://www.EssentialArt.org

  • http://www.Warm-Mouse-Heated-Keyboard.com Warm-Mouse-Heated-Keyboard

    I was told today that more than 100 links on one page is bad. So, I searched google and viola! This article appeared. I feel OK now. Thanks for your help.

  • http://www.bestbingowebsites.co.uk Peter

    Is there any difference to the way you dress up links on a site or is the sheer number of links an issue regardless.

    For example,

    - 100 Links in a drop down
    - 100 Links in a left navigation bar (1 on each line)
    - 100 Links crammed into the footer of a page

  • http://www.bingofind.com/ Jack

    Hi Nick,

    How many links are enough links when you submit your site to paid directories? Is it a case of the more the merrier?